SEMINOLE — The Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County held its Children’s Summit meeting Dec. 4 at the Seminole campus of St. Petersburg College, where it addressed such pressing issues as preventable child deaths, childhood hunger, grade level reading and mentoring and tutoring.
“We have to get going,” stated Dr. Marcie A. Biddleman, JWB Executive Director. “We’ve been here 70 years and we want to use all that we’ve learned, all of the people who have helped us and make for the future of the children in this community.”
To make a strong community, Biddleman said, it couldn’t be just one agency, or just the school system, or the Chamber of Commerce involved, but a collective effort.
“It really does take all of us,” she said.
Referencing the recent outbreaks of mass shootings, Biddleman said that the JWB plans to start talking about violence and gun control, and seeing what the community can do to protect not just the children but the citizens of Pinellas. The executive director then introduced an annual report video, which focused on the three key areas of school readiness, school success and the prevention of abuse and neglect.
Sydney Rogers, executive director of Alignment Nashville, a collective impact organization since 2004, used the term “wicked problems” to describe interconnected problems that are holding children back from realizing their full potential.
“Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry,” Rogers pointed out. “Kids can’t learn when they are dealing with trauma in their homes. Kids can’t learn if they don’t have the resources to support them in tutoring. Kids can’t learn if they can’t see.”
They way that community agencies tend to address these problems is in isolation, she said, and the goal of Alignment Nashville was to focus and coordinate those efforts in a more effective way.
“We had all these agencies that were working and doing great work,” Rogers said, “and impacting a few children and impacting those particular issue areas that are really connected to other issue areas, but not connecting those as one. And so we would see outcomes that were good on one front, but not moving the needle for all children in all ways in the community.”
More communities across the country are following Alignment Nashville’s model, as far away as California and even Hawaii.
“Our goal is to develop a community of practice across the country,” she remarked, “that we can learn from each other and help each other do better working together.”
Brian Aungst, Jr., JWB Board Vice Chair, addressed the Board’s Collective Initiatives, which include preventable child deaths, childhood hunger, grade level reading and mentoring and tutoring.
Leading causes of deaths for children under six are suffocation due to co-sleeping or unsafe sleep situations, drowning and abusive head trauma.
District Six Medical Examiner, Dr. Jon Thogmartin noted that though drownings and abusive head traumas are relatively rare these days, children dying in their sleep are far more common. Thogmartin said he sees about 12 to 19 cases a year, most of the time the child in about four months old. One reason, he explained, is that at that age the children reach the “milestone” of being able to turn themselves over. Part of the problem, he admitted, is that not everyone agrees on infant sleeping positions.
He also estimated that in about 98 percent of children’s deaths from abusive head trauma, a non-biological male is involved, e.g. a mother’s boyfriend or male babysitter.
According to a video shown about preventable child deaths, over the past four years more than 150 children in the Tampa Bay area have died from causes that were “100 percent preventable.” The JWB helped create the “Warning Signs” campaign—which launched in May—in hopes of bringing attention to this matter through public service announcements and billboards throughout the area.
Addressing the problem of childhood hunger, Caitlyn Peacock, project coordinator of the Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger, noted that in Pinellas County there are over 40,000 children that are considered “food insecure,” which equates to over 6.8 million missed meals per year.
“We did a supply and demand analysis at the zip-code level,” Peacock explained, “so communities could see where there were gaps in available resources and use the available demographic information to develop community-specific programs.”
Third grade reading proficiency is one of the most important predictors of high school graduation and career success. Nationwide, only about one third of children are proficient readers in the third grade, and that figure falls to 20 percent when you consider children of low-income families. This year, in conjunction with other organizations, JWB launched Early Readers, Future Leaders, a campaign to ensure Pinellas children will be proficient in grade-level reading by the third grade.
Dr. Valerie Brimm, director of Strategic Partnerships for Pinellas County Schools spoke about the merits and importance of mentoring and tutoring youngsters.
“Mentoring is a strategy used where we try to seek and pair adult mentors to students and mature seniors and juniors to peer mentors in hopes that we may increase the graduation rate,” Brimm stated.
It is not only a benefit for the mentee, Brimm said, but for the mentor as well.
“When you think about those 30 or those 40 minutes that we’re asking you to invest,” she said, “and after a student graduates and you get an invitation to the college graduation, or you might get an invitation to the wedding…that 30, 40-minute investment becomes a lifetime return.”